CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — When two well-dressed Yale men lead up to a presidential debate like schoolboys yelling, "You're another," they need help.
The easy way would be to refer candidate George Bush (Class of '68) and candidate John Kerry ('66) to fellow alumnus Cole Porter ('13). Wouldn't it be "de-lovely," in Porter's phrase, if they stopped singing his tune, "You Irritate Me So"? Then they might get back to the image their families find "Easy to Love." And we could listen less skeptically when they warble "Why Should I Trust You?"
High-powered negotiators prefaced Thursday night's debate with 32 pages of rules restricting spontaneity. But they might have offered classic instruction from the past. Credibility, flip-flopping, and supporting our troops in a divisive war are not new issues. They were part of the legendary senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in Illinois in the fall of 1858.
Mr. Lincoln wasn't above a bit of Cole Porter-esque wordplay, decrying "a fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse."
But Lincoln was plain and temperate in responding to the charge of saying one thing in the North and another in the South. "I only refer to this matter to say that I am altogether unconscious of having attempted any double-dealing anywhere; that upon one occasion I may say one thing and leave other things unsaid, and vice versa; but that I have said anything on one occasion that is inconsistent with what I have said elsewhere, I deny - at least, I deny it so far as the intention is concerned."
In another debate, Judge Douglas read what he called the Black Republican platform and challenged Lincoln to say "whether he now stands and still will stand by each article in that creed and carry it out." He added, "I mean nothing personally disrespectful or unkind to that gentleman." Douglas went on about their mutual humble origins, his as a schoolteacher, Lincoln's as a grocery-keeper. They didn't go to Yale.
Lincoln denied he ever was a grocery-keeper: "And so I think my friend, the Judge, is equally at fault when he charges me ... of having opposed our soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war.... Whenever the Democratic party tried to get me to vote that the war had been righteously begun by the President, I would not do it. But whenever they asked for any money, or land-warrants, or anything to pay the soldiers there, during all that time, I gave the same vote that Judge Douglas did."
On another matter, Douglas declared: "All I have to say is, that I am not green enough to let him make a charge which he acknowledges he does not know to be true, and then take up my time in answering it, when I know it to be false, and nobody else knows it to be true."
Is there an echo in here? Or a prequel?
The seven Lincoln- Douglas debates were not all thoughtful pre-sound-bite rhetoric. Sometimes the natty Douglas and baggy-panted Lincoln sounded more like sparring pols than probing legislators. And who knew this was the Abraham Lincoln? He didn't win the Senate seat. Of course, he did win the presidency two years later.
Will the Yale duo perform in a way to enshrine the Bush-Kerry debates in history? Or will the contenders remain in scuffling schoolyard mode, leaving us with Yalie Porter's lament, "Why Can't You Behave?"
• Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.